Before the press conference began, there was a twist: a neatly packaged highlight video showing Robinson Cano treating baseballs very badly, showing Edwin Diaz’s wipeout slider treating hitters very badly. It is hard to remember another press conference starting this way and it begged three immediate observations, in no particular order:
1. It was like watching a trailer for “A Star is Born” immediately before watching “A Star is Born.” Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper — in this case Cano and Diaz — were sitting on the dais. We’d already decided to come.
2. Apparently Cano has only played for the Seattle Mariners in his career? Can someone check on this for me?
3. The Mets GM, in case you’d forgotten, was an agent in his past professional lifetime.
And as we saw the last time we’d all gathered at the behest of Brodie Van Wagenen, he is a good salesman. He is, in fact, a born salesman, proficient enough that he realizes selling skeptical Mets fans on this trade is nothing compared to selling the Wilpons on what he wants the Mets to be.
“We don’t want this team to be built on ‘ifs.’ ‘If player X stays healthy or if player Y has a breakout year,’ ” Van Wagenen would say later. “We’re not in the mode to finish fourth in our division.”
And look: this trade might still turn out to be a fiasco. In the months and years to come, this may be proven to be just another moment when the Mets cared more about winning a press conference than winning the NL East. And as Van Wagenen himself confirmed, this isn’t — can’t be — the last time we’ll all get together at Citi Field before the home opener against the Nationals on April 4.
But in a time when every team in every sport seems to be talking about some future year, some distant time, 2021 or 2022, when rebuilding and “strategic losing” are words you actually hear in regular sporting conversation, this is actually a refreshing way for a general manager to talk and to behave. At his introductory press conference, Van Wagenen insisted the Mets would conduct business like contemporary contenders.
Tuesday he merely reinforced that credo. Good for him.
“We have a winning mindset,” he said. “And collectively we believe that anything is possible.”
That mindset will be tested in a division that features one defending champion who is only going to get better (Atlanta), the perennial favorite who will remain that way even if it loses its franchise cornerstone (Washington) and a third that is on record being willing to spend “stupid money” in order to reach first place (Philadelphia). This isn’t the soft-soap division that, for years, required worrying about only the Nationals. This is varsity ball.
It is plain that Van Wagenen already has sold his bosses on what it means to want to compete in such an environment. Jeff Wilpon, who was tracking gorillas in Rwanda while his GM was on his own baseball safari, talked about his analytics people saying they were an 82- or 83-win team before the deal, they’re more like an 87- or 88-win team now.
“And we need to get to 90-plus and beyond,” Wilpon said.
Around New York, where everyone but the Yankees is already living in the next decade, this was a refreshing change of pace. Around the Mets, who have spent most of the past 10 years in their own unique brand of half-measure purgatory, it was especially jarring to hear.
Van Wagenen’s revolution isn’t quite what Omar Minaya was able to pull off in his opening weeks in charge 14 years ago, when he signed Pedro Martinez as a prelude to signing Carlos Beltran and primed the Mets’ engine for four straight years of playoff contention, but then Minaya was working in a different climate in those days, before anyone had ever heard the word “Madoff.”
The post-modern Mets haven’t had a stretch quite like this one. There are no guarantees November promise becomes September production because there never are. It just seems more like the way a big-boy baseball team is supposed to operate.
“It goes without saying we did not make this move to be our last move,” Van Wagenen said, and that should be music to Mets’ fans ears, especially since he also hinted it was likely they’d be holding on to Noah Syndergaard. Why? Because a win-now team needs Syndergaard throwing gas every fifth day for it. An ambitious team safeguards its talent, it doesn’t jettison it.
The results may not match that ambition in Flushing come next autumn. But the Mets are back in the arena for a change. And that’s really the only place to be.
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